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Posts Tagged ‘composting’

Mulch ~ save water, reduce weeds, keep fruits above bug level and clean!

I used to be a total mulcher, covered my whole veggie garden. I’ve adjusted my coastal SoCal *mulch thinking to match the plant and the season!

If you are coastal SoCal, in the marine layer zone, your mulch, or composting in place, may be slowing things down a lot more than you realize. The biggest most abundant melons I’ve ever seen grown at cool & coastal Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden were on bare hot dry soil in a plot that had a lower soil level than most of the other plots. The perimeter boards diverted any wind right over the top of the area, the soil got hot! It was like an oven! So, let it be bare! No mulch under melons, your winter squash, pumpkins except under the fruits to keep them off the ground, clean, up from insect predators. Melons!

Put up a low wind barrier – straw bales, a perimeter of densely foliated plants, a big downed log, be creative. Let your peppers and jicama get hot! Eggplant are heat lovers! Okra is full sun Southern hot! If you are coastal cool, help them be warm. If you are foothills hot, mulch them.

Tomatoes need dryer soil to avoid the verticillium and fusarium wilt fungi if your soil has it. Plant them in a basin that keeps the water out! Make the basin on top of a mound with the basin bottom level above the surrounding soil level. Let ‘em dry near the main stem; water nearby plants outside the basin, a foot or more away from the central stem. Let that tap-root do its job, get the water below the fungi, wilt/blight zone, the top 6 to 8 inches. Also, drier soil is not comfy for slugs. Yes, when your toms are babies you need to water in that basin until that tap root is developed. Straw is the best mulch for them because it allows drying air flow. Put only 1″ down to allow light to get through, warm and dry the soil. More about successfully growing Tomatoes!

Get cucumbers up on a trellis, then you won’t need mulch to keep the cukes clean and bug free, but rather because they have short roots and need consistently moist soil. 1″ of straw is good. You want airflow so the soil will dry somewhat. Cukes are susceptible to fungi wilts/blight too, so keep the leaves from touching bare ground. As soon as they are big enough, clip off lower leaves that might touch the ground when weighted with dew, or water in case they get wet. Like tomatoes, they are a fuzzy plant, so better to water at the root, not on the leaves. When they are tall enough, plant low growing spreading heat tolerant lettuces at their feet to act as living mulch. They both like plenty of water to keep them growing fast and sweet, so they are great companions. In that case you will need to use a little Sluggo or its equivalent if you feel comfortable to use it. Know that trellised cukes are cooler up in the air, so your harvest may be a little less, but because your plant will live longer, you will have longer production. Growing Cucumbers!

Straw under cucumbers has an added advantage! Per UC IPM ‘Straw mulch can help reduce cucumber beetle problems. First, mulch might directly slow beetle movement from one plant to another. Second, the mulch provides refuge for wolf spiders and other predators from hot and dry conditions, helping predator conservation.

WATER  Clearly, no mulch, more heat, equals more water needed. Water leaches the soil nutrients away, so you will need to feed your plants during the season. In drought areas, plant in basins below the surrounding soil level. Use your long low flow water wand to water only in the basin at the roots of your plant out to their dripline. If your plant outgrows your basin, make the basin bigger, out to that mature dripline. For vines, adjust your basin according to the size of your vine. Mini melons are quite small compared to Butternut squash! Make your basin big enough to serve the immediate feeding area, to where the lateral feeder roots will extend. Put a stake near the main stem so you know where to water when the big leaves cover the area! Fuzzy leaved plants, tomatoes, cucumber and eggplant, prefer not being watered on their leaves. Since there is no raised mound, there is no maintenance needed for berms surrounding a basin though there is natural settling so you do need to clear the basin occasionally. If you are in a wet area, make those mounds with the bottoms of basins above the surrounding soil level for good drainage and check the berms from time to time to be sure they are holding up. These are variations on age old Waffle Gardening.

LIVING MULCH  Closely planted beets, carrots, garden purslane, radish, strawberries, turnips act as living mulch to themselves and when used as an understory with bigger plants. The dense canopy their leaves make lets little light in, keeps things moist. If you cage or trellis your beans, most of the plant is up getting air circulation, keeping them dryer, more mildew free, if you don’t plant too densely. Beans have short feet that need to stay moist, so do mulch them – your beans and cukes with clean chop and drop, straw or purchased mulch. Strawberries get big pretty quickly and self mulch pretty soon. Chard likes moist and cooler, so mulch. Zucchini, doesn’t care. They are a huge leaved plant, greedy sun lovers, that are self mulching. But, you can do what some do if your zuke is a vining type. Feed the vine up through the largest tomato cages, stake them well, that plant is heavy. Cut off the lower leaves and plant a family of lettuces, carrots, onions, salad bowl fixin’s or basil on the sunny side underneath! If you are in a hot drought zone, plant them in the filtered shade underneath. All of them like plenty of water, so everyone is happy.

SOIL FEEDING MULCH Living mulch may be scattering a legume seed mix that makes Nitrogen nodules on its roots! When the plants die, the N is available to your soil and plants! Throw seeds under larger plants like peppers and eggplant in the summer or broccoli and kale in the winter. When the big plants are done, you can turn the legumes under or clear spots and slice in openings and plant your next crop, letting nature take her course. See more!

If you are going to mulch, do it justice. Besides wanting to cool your soil, keep moisture in, prevent erosion, keep your crop off the soil and away from bugs, and in the long-term, feed your soil, mulching is also to prevent light germinating seeds from sprouting. Put on 4 to 6 inches minimum. Less than that may be pretty, but simply makes great habitat for those little grass and weed seeds! Mulch makes moist soil, where a rich multitude of soil organisms can thrive, including great fat vigorous earthworms if you keep your soil wet enough! You see them, you know your soil is well aerated, doing great!

Mulching is double good on hillsides. Make your rock lined water-slowing ‘S’ terrace walkways snaking along down the hillside. Cover your berms well and deeply to prevent erosion and to hold moisture when there are drying winds. Use a mulch that won’t blow away or garden staple down some plastic. Plant fruit trees, your veggies on the uphill side of your berms.

Use an organic degradable mulch that feeds your soil too! Chop and drop disease and pest free plants to compost in place, spread dry leaves. Spread very well-aged manures. When you water, it’s like compost or manure tea to the ground underneath. Lay out some seed free straw – some feed stores will let you sweep it up for free! If you don’t like the look of that, cover it with some pretty purchased undyed mulch you like. Use redwood fiber only in areas you want to be slightly acidic, like for strawberries. Use redwood fiber as a last resort. Please save our trees. Use gravel if it’s all you’ve got. It works.

COMPOSTING IN PLACE  Build soil right where you need it. Where you do put mulch, tuck kitchen waste out of sight under it, where you will plant next. Sprinkle with a little soil if you have some to spare, that inoculates your pile with soil organisms; pour on some compost tea to add some more! Throw on some red wriggler surface feeder worms. Grow yarrow or Russian comfrey (Syphytum x uplandicum) near your compost area so you can conveniently add a few sprigs to your pile to speed decomposition. It will compost quickly, no smells, feeding your soil excellently! If you keep doing it in one place, a nice raised bed will be built there with little effort!

You don’t have to wait to plant! Pull back a planting space, add compost you have on hand or purchased compost, maybe mix in a little aged manure mix, worm castings, specific amendments to the kind of plant you will be planting. Sprinkle some mycorrhizal fungi on your transplant’s roots, and plant! The warmth from the nearby decomposing materials will speed the growth of your new plant! Yes!

A caution:  The debris pile of composting in place may be habitat for overwintering insect pests, so put it safely away from plants that have had or might suffer infestations. To break a pest’s growing cycle, put no piles at all where there have been pests before.

If you live in a cold climate, cold, cold winters, mulch can keep the soil as warm as possible, extend your season, protect your soil, keep plants from freezing. In SoCal pull mulch away in ‘winter’ to let the sun warm the soil, let soil dry so fungi die. If there have been diseased or infested plants there, put that mulch in the trash, NOT in green waste for city pickup. If it is clean, dig it into landscaped areas to feed the soil or compost it. In general, remove overwintering pest habitat – old straw, weeds and piles of debris. 

So, you see, there are times for mulch and times not for mulch. Using less saves money, saves work. Using it well gives you a better crop!

Mulch is magic when done right!

*Mulch is when you can see distinct pieces of the original materials. Finished compost is when there are no distinct pieces left, the material is black and fluffy and smells good.

Updated from June 11, 2011 post. Updated 5.12.19

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The Green Bean Connection newsletter started as correspondence for the Santa Barbara CA USA, Pilgrim Terrace Community Garden, then became this blog too! All three of Santa Barbara city community gardens are very coastal. During late spring/summer we are in a fog belt/marine layer area most years, locally referred to as the May grays, June glooms and August fogusts. Keep that in mind compared to the microclimate niche where your veggie garden is. Bless you for being such a wonderful Earth Steward!

Love your Mother! Plant bird & bee food! Think grey water! Grow organic!

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